Empty. That is how Piazza Santo Spirito looked when I entered it from the side street that leads to the front of the church. It was 8:30 p.m. — time for aperitivo. Normally the piazza is bustling with young locals. I looked around for the neighborhood crew. They are not difficult to miss. Some of them with dreadlocks, a mix of African, whites and Italian guys rolling cigarettes and possibly other plants, they are usually sitting with their backs up against the church wall.
But today no one was on the church steps. Instead I saw carabinieri (the Italian police force part of the government's military arm) huddled in a corner of the piazza. An eerie feeling came over me. I thought maybe I missed something. Ever since September, 11 I always prepare myself for any possibility — bomb scares, buildings falling etc.
Then I remembered what my friend had recently told me. He said there was a raid on the piazza recently. First the cops were lingering around and next thing he knew all the entrances, including the main entrance that runs along Via Mazzetta, were blocked by police cars. No one could get out. Then the authorities came around and requested documenti (identification papers) from all the people in the piazza, except those who were dining outdoors at a café or bar. Apparently they were trying to find illegal’s.
“The cop was shocked when my friend (part black part Italian) took out his Italian passport,” my American male friend said.
I should mention to my readers that my American male friend is far left than any communist I have met in Tuscany. Most of the time I strongly disagree with his theories, but he did make me question why the authorities only requested documents from those in the square. Why didn’t they check the identification of the people sitting in the outdoor dining areas of the cafés or trattorias, a space that sits on the sidewalk and part of the square? Is it a question of money? Not wanting to disturb those who are spending it? Or is it assumed that those spending it can afford to, and therefore are most likely not to be an illegal immigrant?
My friend and I discussed if it was legal to search people without probable cause; however he reminded me that although many countries emulate the U.S. model of democracy, they tweak the rules to fit their needs.
A couple of months ago I read in Il Reporter, a local newspaper that covers Firenze by quartiere, that the residents of the Santo Spirito area want to build it up into a posh neighborhood. With Roberto Cavalli calling glitz and glamour at Cavalli Club around the corner they were hoping some of that dough would rub off on the rest of the quartiere. I also met some ladies who live in the square and they spoke of a Santo Spirito committee to clean up and better the neighborhood.
For who? For the people that live in Florence? The people who the police pressured into giving up their identification? Or for the businessmen and politicians who want a piece of the tourist action that takes place across Ponte Vecchio.
It’s true. There are drunks and drugs in the piazza. In the doorways of the homes that make up the border of the square there are always people drinking and once or twice I’ve seen some selling. But they never bother me. This is the place where I go to have a reasonably priced aperitivo not affected by “tourist inflation,” to hang out with friends, and to be surrounded by real Florence. Not the tourist saturated Piazza della Repubblica or Piazza Signoria.
This is a place that is filled with people who live here, alternative Florentines with their thick rimmed glasses and dogs stroll in, the occasionally Brit or American looking for the unconventional sit down at a Café, and the Arabs who meet for business stand around the water fountain that sits in the middle of the square. The church steps are filled with locals drinking beer, putting on fire shows and playing bongos on any given evening, especially during the summer. It’s real.
I am not advocating the drug sales or use, and violence that sometimes takes place here. But how can Santo Spirito be“cleaned up” without losing its life? Why do all have to be punished for what a few do? I fear that if the politicians focus too much on it, they will make it sterile. It could be compared to the rift raft of Times Square replaced by Disney Land during Giuliani’s term. Ask a New Yorker how many times he hangs out in Times Square.
I once read a book that was a compilation of interviews with three famous Italian journalists (of course I don’t remember the name of the book or the journalists). One of the journalists was questioned about his choice to stay in the margins of society. He explained that it was where the action was. To know what was really going on in society one had to be in touch with those who lived outside the mainstream. It is in the margins of society where change and creativity take place. This is why I spend most of my time in Oltrarno and go to Piazza Santo Spirito.
Piazza Santo Spirito is the home of the modern Tuscan hippies and the recent foreigner trying to carve a place. It is the home of the contemporary not the redundant Renaissance. Florence’s now converges there and it would be a shame to see it silenced.